Is America’s Chernobyl in Canada’s future?

Guest comment by Chris Genovali

Many Canadians have been anxiously following the unfolding Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster and are experiencing a deep sense of unease as they scan the daily media reports.Such foreboding is clearly understandable as one can’t help thinking this might be a nightmarish peek into one possible future for British Columbia as federal and provincial political “leaders” here in Canada lay the groundwork to transform our Pacific coast into an “energy corridor.” They dream of seismic testing, off-shore drilling, pipelines from the tar sands and oil tankers plying our rocky coast.  Carl Pope, former chairman of the Sierra Club in the United States, has dubbed the British Petroleum catastrophe “America’s Chernobyl.” U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, not exactly known as being a fervent environmentalist, describes the potential outlook for the Gulf Coast oil spill as “a very grave scenario.”

In the wake of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, federal opposition parties are calling for emergency hearings before the Commons Natural Resources Committee to discuss the need for more stringent safeguards against oil spills in Canada’s Arctic. But the public needs to be properly and clearly informed as to the risks and tradeoffs with regard to proposed oil development and transport for the B.C. coast as well.

Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s recently released report, “What’s at Stake -– The cost of oil on British Columbia’s priceless coast,” is designed to do just that; available on the Raincoast website. Enbridge Inc.’s proposal to build a twin pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to the north coast of B.C. means we could see supertankers on the coast transporting oil to offshore markets. This presents a very significant threat to coastal marine and terrestrial species and ecosystems, as well as to the food supply and livelihoods of First Nations and coastal communities.

It was fascinating to recently read in the Financial Post how Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel is advocating for what amounts to a national corporate welfare initiative as he flogs his company’s “Northern Gateway pipeline” project, tossing out empty platitudes like “we’re doing it … for Canada.” Daniel’s suggestion that Canadians will need to massively subsidize the transport of tar sands crude through a series of confiscatory tax mechanisms in order to make it viable is transparently ironic. However, his assertion that tar sands development and the Enbridge pipeline, as well as the attendant oil tanker traffic that will put B.C.’s coastal environment at great risk is at heart an egalitarian crusade to help poor energy-starved developing countries is cynical beyond belief.

The FP’s Terence Corcoran was spot-on when he wrote that what Enbridge “appears to be looking for is not so much a National Energy Strategy as a national regulatory system to codify massive transfers of wealth from one energy source to another, from consumers to the oil sands.” But more than that, in effect Enbridge wants to socialize the cost of the inevitable oil tanker accident on B.C.’s coast, while privatizing the profit of course. Glib statements regarding the risk of a catastrophic oil spill on the B.C. coast if his company’s pipeline is approved and constructed are likely cold comfort to most British Columbians, the majority of who would prefer an oil-free coast according to polling on the issue.

Enbridge has made much of the fact that double hull tankers would be used to transport tar sands crude from the north coast terminal in Kitimat. But double hulls have their own set of problems. In an article for the Prince Rupert Daily News, Jennifer Rice delineated several of those issues, including this one: “When double-hulled tankers are traveling at low speeds and a collision occurs, only the first hull is punctured preventing the oil from spilling out. At higher speeds the extra hull has done little to prevent oil spills. In reality, the speed at which both hulls can be pierced is surprisingly low – as little as three knots depending on the strike angle.”

Blind faith in modern technology is often misplaced; only 18 days before the Gulf Coast disaster, in justifying his position on off shore drilling, President Barack Obama asserted “oil rigs today don’t generally cause spills as they are technologically very advanced.” Attaching a dollar value to the damage that spilled oil does to marine and terrestrial ecosystems is an impossible task. Who will pay? If history is any indication, it likely won’t be the corporate entities responsible for the disaster. The cost of the Exxon Valdez spill has been estimated at $9.5 billion, of which Exxon paid $1 billion, with taxpayers footing the rest of the bill. Further, does that even begin to cover the price of a pod of killer whales driven to extinction or the demise of a coastal fishing community’s way of life?

Chris Genovali is the executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundatio

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